How Can Organizations Reap the Benefits of a Diverse Workforce?

Assessing the Organization’s Diversity Paradigm

Too often, organizations focus on merely recruiting employees from different demographic groups, mistakenly hoping the benefits of diversity will magically follow. Whether or not an organization will fully benefit from diversity, however, depends on how its members answer the questions, “What do we do with this diversity? Why do we want a diversified workforce?” 1,2 Organizations must explicitly address these questions if they are to prevent diversity efforts from backfiring and if they are to reap the oft-touted benefits of better performance and productivity. Engaging in conversations about these questions is essential, then, even if such conversations initially seem time-consuming, abstract, or even ominous.

Ely and Thomas identify three different paradigms — each with different assumptions and outcomes — that can help members of organizations understand how they think about diversity (See chart):

  • the Discrimination – Fairness Paradigm
  • the Access – Legitimacy Paradigm
  • the Learning – Integration Paradigm

The first two paradigms — the most common, to date — result in some positive outcomes but limit the benefits an organization can gain from diversity. Only the Learning-Integration Paradigm allows organizations to recognize the full potential of a diversified workforce.


  1. Initiate explicit conversations about the organization’s diversity paradigm.
    For resources to begin such conversations see the resources listed below and the diversity paradigm chart.

  2. Consider several preconditions necessary for shifting to a learning-integration paradigm.1
    Assess to what extent these already exist and select the most feasible areas for improvement. (See additional resources listed below.)

    • The organization understands that a diverse workforce brings different approaches to work and that these are to be learned from not “fixed” to fit the existing norm.
    • The organizational culture stimulates personal development.
    • The organizational culture encourages openness.
    • The organization has a well-articulated and widely understood mission.
    • The organization has a relatively egalitarian, nonbureaucratic structure.
  3. Take a small steps approach.
    Not all preconditions need to be in place at once for change to occur. The learning and integration paradigm can be approached from several angles at once and is best accomplished initially in small groups.





  • Ely, R. & Thomas, D. (2001). Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes. Administrative Science Quarterly, 229-273.
  • Thomas, D. & Ely, R. (1996). Making differences matter: A new paradigm for managing diversity. Harvard Business Journal, 79-90.
  • For practical tools and workshops: Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Practice Program; MDB Group, Inc.


Authors: Catherine Ashcraft